Saturday, January 23, 2016

First Snowstorm: 2015-2016 Winter

Unwarmed by any sunset light
The gray day darkened into night,
A night made hoary with the swarm
And whirl-dance of the blinding storm,
As zigzag wavering to and fro
Crossed and recrossed the winged snow:
And ere the early bedtime came
The white drift piled the window-frame,
And through the glass the clothes-line posts
Looked in like tall and sheeted ghosts.
-- John Greenleaf Whittier, Snow-Bound: A Winter Idyl (1866), lines 31-40.

Last Sunday was our first snowfall, and today we most definitely have been hit with our first snowstorm of the season. As of yesterday they were saying possibly 8-10 inches. The latest estimate is now 24-28 inches, but it is slowing down now. I went out for a walk a few hours ago and it was blizzard-like; I was walking in snow drifts up to my knees. I actually found it exhilarating and couldn't stop laughing, although after walking around for a few blocks I was super cold and wet, and headed back inside. The picture you see here I took this afternoon from AA's loft window in Jersey City, where we have been hunkered down and he has been dealing with a cold.

The quotation of poetry above, however, has been a personal touch to my day. I recently rediscovered on my bookshelf an 1898 edition of the poetry of Whittier, a book I long have treasured because it belonged to my Nana when she was in elementary school in 1915. Her name is written in her hand on the inside cover. Ages ago, I had read Whittier's poem when I was in school, and it has remained one of my favorite American poems. Having grown up in NY/NJ, snow has always been part of my life, and I find the descriptions of the snowstorm to be so beautifully written. But even more rewarding are Whittier's poetic memories of his family members, each of whom he describes recounting their own past lives, all while a snowstorm brews outside. The literary layering of Whittier in the 1860s writing a poem to his niece that recounts his own memories of his family (and visiting guests), who entertain one another with stories of their own lives, makes this poem a heart-warming paean to history, family, narrativity, and how nature has the power to remind us of our connection to the earth and the seasons. If you haven't read this poem before, I highly recommend it. To learn more about Whittier and the history of the poem, click here.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

First Snowfall: 2015-2016 Winter...and Picasso at MoMA

When you consider that our first snowfall last fall/winter took place around Thanksgiving 2014, it is actually rather surprising that today, January 17, 2016, is the first snowfall of the 2015-2016 winter. And aptly timed for this blog, as I just posted about snow and winter landscapes earlier today. AA and I had brunch on the UWS with JDN, and then AA and I went to the Museum of Modern Art to see Picasso Sculpture, the exhibition about which the critics have been raving.

I hate the crowds and lines at MoMA, but we still were able to get a good look at a number of pieces. It is actually an interesting show to see how Picasso's sculptural styles and media transformed over the decades. There was an introductory wall panel for each room; however, there were no wall labels for the objects on display. At first this was disconcerting, although I quickly realized people had picked up free booklets with all the object information detailed in their hands, or they were listening to podcasts on their iPhones or hand-held devices. Rather than follow their lead, however, AA and I just wandered and gazed at various sculptures we could get close to, and we talked about them without really having complete contexts on which to base them. In many ways it was a more refreshing experience because we focused more on the materiality and design of the sculptures. At one point I even noted that if we dropped Picasso's name from the show entirely, it still was an interesting survey of modernist sculpture over the decades with some excellent works of art. For an artist known to people as a Cubist and hence abstract artist, it was fascinating to see how figurative his sculptures actually were, i.e. faces of his lovers, friends, animals, etc. Even his Cubist-style sculptures were more figurative than one might imagine. We also walked through the Joaquín Torres-García exhibition. I was only familiar with the Uruguayan artist as part of the Barcelona group of circles who moved from Art Nouveau to Surrealism. It was an interesting survey of his career. His own particular Cubist-brand of Surrealistic symbolic language in gray and white, ca. 1930, was clearly the apex of his oeuvre, but after a while the pictures all seemed to be highly repetitive and lacking individuality to my eye.

videoIt had started snowing before we got into the museum, and it was seriously coming down when we left about 4:15pm. The picture you see above I took at the intersection of 79th St. and Broadway, and the brief 5-second video you see here I took outside MoMA on 54th St., and shows you how fast the snow was coming down. It is not sticking to the ground, so we can't call this the first snowstorm of the season, but as I mentioned in my previous post it is still wonderful to watch it fall. I stayed outside longer, walking in the snow, just to relish the cool wetness of it on my head and face.

MWA XXXVII: Hassam's Winter

I know I am not alone when I say that winter landscape scenes are perhaps some of my most favorite subjects in paintings. There is something breathtaking in the vision of falling and new-fallen snow that many artists over the centuries have attempted to represent, knowing full well this is an idealistic sense of reality. In our automobile/truck-occupied world today, snow plows and vehicles quickly make the snow disgusting, slush turns gray and gross, and for all eternity neighborhood dogs like to...how should we say?...turn white snow yellow as fast as they can! Nevertheless, there is something tranquil about watching snow fall from the skies, then afterward listening to children play in the snow and wandering out in the crisp air admiring the effect of the snow on trees and houses. Snow is about the power of nature to purify and cleanse, and in a major city like New York it is fascinating to see how snow even here can diminish the noise and bustle of the urban environment and make it as serene as a country landscape, if but for a short while. It is the white-ness of new-fallen snow, with its Western associations of purity and innocence, that has the power to blanket and coat the urban environment and create a visual sense of rebirth.

From a painter's perspective there is the trick of how to represent the actual effects of snow. It would seem easy to just use white paint, but light and shadows play tricks on snow, and one realizes there is no such thing as snow that is just one white hue. Artists such as Childe Hassam, in the work you see here as this Monthly Work of Art, used tones of icy blue in this representation of Central Park South/59th Street on a snowy late afternoon, just before twilight, suggesting how the setting sun's rays, at a sharp angle, give snow an iridescent quality. Hassam was one of the most successful American Impressionists. Influenced by Monet, Renoir, and Pissarro, Hassam and other Americans by the 1890s were absorbing the lessons they learned in Paris and introducing to an American audience their version of paintings that showed both the transience of modern American life, often using short, quick brushstrokes to suggest action and immediacy, but also playing with the visual effects of light on the world around them to create a unique vision of how the artist saw the world. Although I always admit that I am not a big fan of Impressionist painting, I certainly can appreciate the talents and skillful experiments many of these artists exuded. And, as in this case, I do love a beautiful winter landscape scene, particularly one that shows a historical view of New York.

Image credit: Frederick Childe Hassam (American, 1859-1935). Late Afternoon, New York, Winter, 1900, oil on canvas, 36 15/16 x 29 in., Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 62.68.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Art Exhibitions of 2015


The end of each calendar year brings out all the art critics to write about the best art exhibitions they experienced that year. Because we live in the NYC area, with an incredibly rich cultural scene, we are fortunate that there is so much to see. Here, for instance, is the link to Holland Cotter and Roberta Smith's article on the best in the art world in 2015, which is quite comprehensive if thematic in its arrangement. Conscious of geography and its limitations to lists, I like that Hyperallergic does separate reviews for NYC and other parts of the world in their annual rankings, to create a more level playing field, it would seem. As for me, since I don't have the luxury, liberty, or time to see every exhibition in NYC, let alone in the world, I can only base my list on what I have been fortunate to see. This year I did see a lot, including a number of new museums and collections for the first time, listed at the end of this post. Below is my annual summary of what I felt were the best shows I saw this year (here is last year's post). And, for the record, I should note that I have not yet seen Picasso Sculpture at MOMA, partly because going to see an exhibition there is a total nightmare. Fortunately, it closes in about a month from now, so I still have time.

I still am surprised that no one I have encountered, read, or spoken to, ever saw what I consider to have been one of the best shows of 2015. Entitled Body and Soul: Munich Rococo from Asam to Günther, this exhibition (installation view above) brought together over 160 sculptures in polychrome wood, terracotta, silver, and stucco, as well as drawings and paintings and prints by a number of largely unknown sculptors based in Bavaria during the 1700s (hence the eponymous Asam brothers, Cosmas Damian and Egid Quirin Asam, working early in the century, to Ignaz Günther at the end). This exhibition was installed at the Kunsthalle in Munich, a space for rotating special exhibitions. The installations of many of these works was simply stunning. The exhibition was ecclesiastic in its focus (Bavaria, unlike the rest of Germany, historically remained Catholic), so one saw mostly angels and saints in the show. Normally installed in churches, cathedrals, and chapels, these works typically are part of elaborate, intricate architectural settings and interior spaces. Removing them and putting them on exhibition in this way, however, gave the viewer the opportunity to appreciate them as individualized works of art, with an emphasis on the sculptural quality of these figures, i.e. their materiality and craftsmanship, and occasionally their hyperrealistic theatricality. At the same time, removing them from their usually-ornate environments, the viewer appreciated how their contorted, exaggerated forms make them seem proto-surreal and modern. The image you see above was just one of the many rooms in which the stunning display of larger-than-life figures impressed viewers. It is unfortunate that this exhibition did not get more attention internationally. Despite the national focus, I suspect it is because it was largely religious in nature, and religion does not usually do so well with audiences today.

Two other sculpture shows that are high on my list derive from the ancient and contemporary art worlds. In Florence I saw at the Palazzo Strozzi the exhibition Power and Pathos: Bronze Sculpture of the Hellenistic World, which showcased intricate and often naturalistic works of art crafted from the period between Alexander the Great's death in 323 BCE and the foundation of the Roman Empire in 31 BCE (image left: Victorious Athlete, 300-100 BCE, bronze and copper, Getty). Drawn from collections worldwide, many of the objects were presented with interesting didactic panels that provided a broad context from how the bronze figures were made to their socio-economic and political uses. The exhibition was co-organized with The J. Paul Getty Center, and is currently still on show at present at the National Gallery in Washington, DC until March.

In contrast to this ancient survey, the exhibition of works by Doris Salcedo at the Guggenheim here in NYC was absolutely worth visiting. I was first introduced to Salcedo a few years ago when she did the infamous "crack" Shibboleth in the floor of the Tate Modern Turbine Hall, which had some interest but seemed to rely too much on the conceptual for my taste. This year, however, the exhibition of a selection of her work clearly revealed her focus on her heritage growing up in Colombia during turbulent years in its history. Her works address violence, racism, and misogyny, but they also fool the mind with their use of unusual materials and the juxtaposition of hard and soft media that confuses the mind. The installation view seen here shows a series of historical wooden pieces of furniture that have had concrete poured into them. Making them useless as furniture, they take on a new function as archaeological monoliths that question ideas about the domestic sphere. An installation piece that changes with each space, these incredibly heavy objects challenge one's ideas about what constitutes space itself, then, and in the spirit of sculpture-as-objects the viewer is forced to engage with them in a way that blocks your entry and exit. Their monumentality and gravitas were provocative and almost tangible. The two criticisms I had about this exhibition, however, was that it was spread out through the galleries at the Guggenheim in a way that I found disconcerting and fractured. Secondly, it was absurd of the designers not to make the wall texts and panels bilingual. In this day and age in America, curators and designers have a responsibility to create Spanish texts in addition to English texts whenever they exhibit a Latino/a artist. (Brooklyn Museum successfully did this with their Francisco Oller exhibition, but alas I was not as thrilled about that show overall.)

Shirin Neshat: Facing History was on exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, DC, when AA and I visited there in June. Like with Salcedo, I had seen a few of Neshat's photographs and one film in the past, and was intrigued by her work, but this retrospective was amazing. I would go so far as to say it is #2 on my list of the best exhibitions I saw this year. Born in Iran in 1957, Neshat left in 1975, and her art work since then has addressed the turbulent politics of Islam and Iran's relationship with the West. She has staged historical recreations of important political events, uses multiple cameras to personify the divided worlds of men and women, and hand-manipulates exquisite black-and-white and color photographs with Persian texts, all in to draw attention to the crises we face in our ongoing political battles between Iran and the West to this day. Neshat is one of those artists whose work continues to have more relevance with each passing year as jihadists in the Near East continue to strike fear in the hearts of everyone--Christian, Muslim, Jew, Buddhist, everyone--in the world. The image you see here is a manipulated photograph from her 1993 series I Am Its Secret (Women of Allah) [Photo: Plauto © Shirin Neshat].

On my list, I would next say that #3 is Archibald Motley: Jazz Age Modernist. On display at the new Whitney Museum of American Art, this show was an absolute delight. African-American of mixed-race heritage, Motley (1891-1981) was trained academically, but was influenced by modernist trends after World War I. His portraits of blacks, whites, and mixed-race people emphasize the wide array of complexions and social standings that exist in our world. He celebrated the advancements and opportunities that jazz gave to blacks in America and Paris, and clearly loved music and dance. The painting you see here, Tongues (Holy Rollers), 1929, is an exploration of the spirituality endemic in some black communities, but you also can see in the movement of their bodies that this is a dance, a paean to life-as-spirituality, and how jazz is influencing even how one can think about religion. This exhibition taught me about an American artist whose work I had little exposure to before now, and showed me beautiful paintings that made me go through the exhibition more than once to absorb all the colors, forms, compositions, and sensations. It made me appreciate yet again how incredibly fascinating the 1920s were in American art, a statement I have been making ever since I saw the incredible show Youth and Beauty: Art of the American Twenties at Brooklyn Museum in 2011. To wrap up this section, I should add that the Whitney Museum also deservedly gets kudos for the new Renzo Piano building in the Meatpacking District. They have done an amazing job of integrating public and private space, outdoor and indoor space, in one building, and in so doing have unexpectedly also created a charming new community in a neighborhood that culturally was on the rise but now has taken off.

To wrap up this post here are a few other honorable mentions from exhibitions I saw this year:

  • I was delighted I had the opportunity to see Flaming June by Frederic, Lord Leighton, at The Frick (image right). This painting is one of those great pictures from posters and postcards that first inspired people to look anew at Victorian painting (even I had a poster of it!). Seeing this picture in person reminded me that Leighton is painterly and has a lush brushstroke, even though images make him seem to be a slick, linear classicist. Viewers love this painting for its sensual depiction of the young woman in her diaphanous draperies, and it does not disappoint in person. I also liked how the Frick installed the picture by two of their ladies by J. A. M. Whistler, cleverly demonstrating how the two were part of the Aesthetic Movement, which emphasized beauty in art without subject or moral meaning, but painted so differently.
  • At the Metropolitan Museum of Art this year, one of their big successes has been Kongo: Power and Majesty, which I saw not too long ago. It is indeed an excellent installation and does a good job of not only showcasing beautiful examples of African art in numerous media, but also engaging well with issues such as slavery and post-colonialism with the Portuguese trade of this area from the 1600s to the 1900s. 
  • Another great Met Museum exhibition was Sargent: Portraits of Artists and Friends, not because it was a wonderful installation, but because everyone just loves gazing at and revelling in John Singer Sargent's bravura of a brushstroke. 
  • In contrast, Navigating the West: George Caleb Bingham and the River was not necessarily a beautiful exhibition, but it was very interesting learning more about this 19th-century painter based in Missouri drawn from scientific analysis of his paintings and looking more closely at his contemporary sources. 

I will close this post by noting that I was fortunate to visit a few museums for the first time this year. These were, in no particular order: the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City; the Barnes Foundation and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia; the Galleria Nazionale dell'Arte Moderna in Rome (amazing unknown 19th-century art); the Guildhall Art Gallery in London (Victorian pictures galore!); and Dia:Beacon in upstate New York (whole new appreciation for Sol LeWitt's wall murals). I also had a great research trip to Boston and visited for the first time the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and the reconstituted Harvard Art Museums, and revisited for the first time in almost twenty years the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Amazing art, collections, installations, and exhibitions in these places...2015 was quite a great year.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Happy 2016!


Another New Year celebration has passed. A year ago our annual New Year's message celebrated not only the welcome of 2015 but our 500th post. This year, it was quite a laid-back celebration. AA and I rang in the new year with our feet up on the coffee table participating in the countdown...and then going to bed. Yes, it was a quiet couple's night for us. Today, however, New Year's Day, we were in SoHo and the East Village for a while walking around. Our 72-degree temperatures of Christmas Eve are long gone...the high today was 43, and it's going to get colder over the next few days, so it was chilly, but good to get out.

We went to see the new movie Carol with Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, who play respectively an older, married mother and a younger aspiring photographer who fall in love during Christmas/New Year's of 1951-52. The movie may seem a little slow, but it is beautifully filmed, and the writing and acting is superb, so the tempo of the storyline is intentional and more realistic as a result. Cate looks stunning in this move, incredibly elegant in her expensive, chic 1950s couture, and Rooney is adorable in her plaids and youthful sweaters. Their characters practically transform into icons from the past. Rooney becomes a dead ringer for Audrey Hepburn, and Cate finds herself somewhere between Deborah Kerr and Grace Kelly. A true love story, it has its crescendo and its heartache. The film delicately handles their sexuality and the controversy of their love, not as normalized, for it would never have been perceived that way in the 1950s, but certainly more as being more consciously in the cultural awareness of the greater NYC area than one might typically assume of lesbianism in the 1950s. Sarah Paulson (best known from her amazing characters on American Horror Story) is excellent as well in her supporting role as Cate's friend and former lover. Overall, this is a movie worth seeing indeed, and will receive a number of nominations if not awards.

Last year I did not change the look or design of bklynbiblio, but I've made some background and color changes this time around. I may update it a few times seasonally, when I have the time. If you read these posts via email or an RSS reader, you can always go directly to http://bklynbiblio.blogspot.com to see the new look and read all of the posts from the past. And so we welcome the year 2016...HAPPY NEW YEAR!!